Monday 22 June 2015

Poetry, Evolution, and The Interpreter's House


The UK has many Creative Writing degree courses now, generating more jobs and more poets. These poets have been brought up on newer (often US) influences, producing newer styles of poems. But where do they get published? At first it was difficult, marginal habitats being all that was available. Gradually however, magazines changed. Some (Weyfarers) disappeared, some (Iota) were taken over and rebooted by young editors. Book publishers were the slowest to change. When old editors didn't move aside, new publishers (e.g. Salt, Nine Arches) emerged and encroached.

Conditions for change

As well as a growing mass of poets, there were external conditions that encouraged change

  • Lack of external threat and obligation - poets were no longer expected to produce marketable books or compromise for the general public. Certainly they weren't expected to speak for their generation. The energy freed from the need for self-protection or pronouncement could be used for experimentation
  • Hot-house isolation - It became easier to incubate novelty in secure (academic), supportive surroundings, using the internet to find like-minds wherever they were.


New genres emerge from old much as new species emerge -

  • Mutation
  • Combination - a fusion of 2 or more genres: magic realism for example. Some hybrids may be sterile.
  • Arrested development (neotony) - e.g. a sketch treated as a finished work
  • New habitats - a new media will encourage new or adapted genres
  • Asteroids - New material might have arrived from elsewhere

The simplest mutations adjust the proportions of what already exists, perhaps removing some parts completely. A common recommendation is to chop the first few "set-up" lines of poems. Often the final, cloying closure's removed too. These minor mutations can set off a chain of changes - less reliance on narrative for example, more fragmentation. Before long a new species buds off from the evolutionary bough.


Faced with habitat change, some older poets sought more congenial surroundings (e.g. when US Formalists found the going hard, some found a welcome in the UK). The risk of shrinking habitats broken up into isolated patches was ameliorated by the improved communication that the Internet offered. Some poets (e.g. Alison Brackenbury) were good enough to survive the changes without needing to change, others (e.g. George Szirtes) encompassed so much variety that change was just a matter of judicious selection.

The Interpreter's House (issue 59), June 2015

I found this magazine (Martin Malone's the main editor) an interesting read, and typical of the new breed of quality, relaunched periodicals. It shows how change and continuity can ride tandem. It contains 2 stories and about 60 poems, some of the latter being chosen by competition judge Liz Berry. Amongst the contributors are many Creative Writing students past and present, Ilkley and Bridport winners, and people with books by Red Squirrel Press, Enitharmon, Smith Doorstep, Shoestring, tall lighthouse, Nine Arches Press, Poetry Salzburg, Cinnamon, Shearsman, etc - in other words, impressive credentials, with far fewer mentions of esoteric publications than "Tears in the Fence" has. Significantly perhaps there's also nothing about older publishers like Bloodaxe and Carcanet.

I liked a few of the poems, and liked parts of others (though perhaps for inappropriate reasons). A few I thought suspiciously plain, as if I'd missed the point. The rest, though evidently crafted, were difficult for me, especially the competition pieces. Let me pick 2 examples by 2 clearly accomplished poets

  • Here's the 1st section (of 4) from "What Colour Is The Sea?" by Rosemary Norman.
    Every evening a dog barks
    in the stairwell.
    Separate from our talk -

    though that too echoes
    off tiled walls -
    the bark's inflection's not

    unlike human complaint
    as if the dog
    hoped earlier for better.
    Norman's passage in itself makes prose sense, the dog used as analogy, though it sounds a mite strange, and doesn't work for me as an independent piece.
  • Rob Miles' "A skinful" has
    A clown

    brought in to cheer, waves
    and turns two hoop-wands, as if to tantalise

    and sharpen the fingers of those screaming children
    with frogspawn. Let's you and I stroll over
    This is more puzzling - sharpen fingers with frogspawn? Is "Let's" a typo or a colloquialism?

In both pieces the line-breaks are beyond me, but that's nothing new. Nor are the part/whole issues. I'm happy to delay interpretation with no expectation of an eventual integrative aha!, but I still dwell on the parts individually and in combination. Both poems allude to (but aren't unified by) their title, though they leave it rather late -

  • The final part of Norman's poem commences with mention of the (until now neglected) title - "The sea is greenish-blue,/ grey, silver, lilac -/ absurd this giving names// to colours picked up idly/ and returned/ all as one, with the sea's authority", which may be the presiding theme of the poem (something to do with inadequacy of language). The poem ends with "They'll hear it/ gather gulls' cries/ in its din total like silence. I can't parse that, unless it means that the din is as overwhelming as silence. "they" might refer to the colours or the third-person couple in part 3. I don't think it refers to the first-person people in the first part.
  • Miles' poem ends with "there's this/ lustrous rainbow crazing on something// also taking a skinful, for a moment/ holding its own" which leaves me none the wiser, though I was expecting something about alcohol or intoxication.

I wondered how superficial the differences were between some of these poems and some typical older ones, whether they share the same template, varying only in surface fashion. I get Stuart Henson's piece (I suspect it's no coincidence that it's in rhyming couplets) and James Giddings' poem, perhaps because they're standard templates told more slant than usual. Several of the other pieces are slight mutations of standard templates -

  • Sarah Westcott's "Bats" is only partly descriptive ("You cannot hear us but you'll feel/ our hunting song across your teeth/ defiling the laws of physics/ with frequencies beyond this")
  • Tammy Adams' "Finger Plan" starts with a sort of palm reading, taking a page to imagine making the persona's hand into a giant city ("There is excited talk of an extra finger") before ending with "Or, one day, another hand/ might extend towards yours./ And you will want to take it.// What of your city then?". The closure is standard, the length and sprawl of the first section isn't. In Stalking the Typical Poem Jan Schreiber identifies a New Yorker poem template: "It is unmetered and unrhymed; It is focused on a particular event; Its details are slightly fantastical but not incomprehensible; It invites metaphoric or symbolic interpretation; It can be reduced to a simple, unsurprising observation; It ends inconclusively – in this case with an unanswered question". This poem's not so far away from that shape. Idle speculation suddenly clashes with reality.

In the context of such poems, some of the more prosaic pieces stand out more than they usually might. I don't get Jack Houston's piece, unless I've overestimated its intentions - it's prose with odd white space. Gary Wilson's straightforward "Sonnet" (Highly Commended) seems minor, beginning with "You said I ought to phone my wife and I/ agreed. Chinese veg in black bean sauce,/ a bottle of wine, chopsticks, colourless/ tea".


The emergence of new species doesn't necessarily imply the extinction of the old, though the old may return to niches or seek pastures new. The Web is a new continent, offering new audiences and confrontations for poets young and old. New magazines and courses are appearing to cater for people suddenly interested in writing poetry. Such people tend to have an easy time with the older poetry.

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